TAMPA — After only a handful of pitches, it was clear Brandon Caples did not — and would not — have his best stuff.
The King senior, who came into the game with an 8-0 record and 1.25 ERA, was obviously not his usual self in the District 6A-11 championship against Leto on Thursday night.
“I pretty much just left the ball up all night,” Caples said.
But once again, the Lions proved they’re much more than a couple of strong-armed pitchers and a legendary head coach who wasn’t allowed to join them in the dugout or even the stadium.
Tyeler Checkley didn’t allow a hit in 31/3 innings of relief and King scored eight runs over the fourth and fifth innings, defeating Leto 9-3 for its second straight district title and third in four years.
“We stayed positive and eventually took some of the momentum back,” said Anthony Macaluso, Lions assistant and son of suspended head coach Jim Macaluso. “We’ve been down before so we knew how to handle it.”
The Lions (22-3) will host a region quarterfinal next week.
Jim Macaluso, coach of King for the past 38 years, should be able to return to the dugout by then after finishing up a three-week suspension following an ejection from a game April 6.
Without their coach, or senior ace and University of Florida signee Brett Morales on the mound, the Lions still managed to win their way to another district title.
Kevin Buckley, Bubby Terp and Sey Juan Lawrence came up big offensively for King, which eventually overwhelmed the Falcons in their home stadium after falling behind early.
Their early deficit came about because of the surprising struggles of Caples, the Lions’ usually reliable No. 2 pitcher.
Caples gave up four hits in the first inning and four more in the fourth, putting the Lions in a two-run hole before handing over the ball to Checkley.
Leto (13-11) never hit or scored again, and that gave the Lions enough time to finally find their offensive groove against last-minute Leto starter Mike Urso.
Falcons coach J.J. Pizzio said Urso filled in for Felix Dieguez, who was injured this week, and Al Maceo, who was suspended for breaking team rules.
Urso allowed only one run and one hit through the first three innings, but eventually wore down under the unusually heavy workload.
“He can throw one pitch really, really well,” Pizzio said. “But I knew (King) was going to get to him. I just didn’t know when.”
The game was delayed about a half-hour late in the fourth inning after Leto outfielder Rodney Jackson smashed into a pole along the rightfield fence while pursuing a fly ball. School officials called for an ambulance and Jackson left the stadium on a stretcher, giving a thumbs-up sign as he taken away.
Pizzio said Jackson was initially knocked out but regained consciousness before emergency medical personnel arrived.
7A-9: Efficient win for Steinbrenner
TAMPA — Steinbrenner and Wiregrass Ranch qualified for their first region playoff Tuesday. On Thursday, they duked it out at Gaither to decide who would host.
“It’s real hard as the runnerup to host any games in regionals,” Warriors coach John Crumbley said. “Plus, we like our yard.”
The Warriors did not disappoint their coach, as they dropped the Bulls 4-0 with two-run innings in the first and fifth on the back of some stellar defensive play and a rock-solid outing from Logan LaPace. He finished with three strikeouts while giving up five hits and no earned runs.
“We don’t know what he (LaPace) throws, but three times against him and we haven’t figured it out yet,” Wiregrass coach Jeff Swymer said.
The Warriors got two runs off a four-hit first then opened it up in the fifth when No. 9 hitter Brennan Garcia laced a pitch to left-center, driving in two more runs. The Bulls scattered five hits and could scarcely get a runner to third; two of their five hits stayed in the infield.
Defense kept the Bulls in the game. Michael Campoamor had six put-outs from shortstop and each team had a double play. Campoamor knocked down a ball hit right at him and threw out Jesse Haney to end the second inning with the bases loaded. Mijon Cummings had a great catch in foul territory for Steinbrenner, and Marcus Guzman made a diving catch in centerfield in the fourth inning for Wiregrass.
8A-7: Cougars reclaim crown
VALRICO — Durant didn’t have to look far a reminder. The Cougars gymnasium wall told the story — no district baseball championships since 2001.
“We had to look at it every day,” Durant coach Butch Valdes said.
But the Cougars changed all that Thursday night, using a Tyler Danish homer and a strong outing from starter Chaz Fowler to defeat
Wharton 5-1 in Class 8A-7, capturing their first district crown in more than a decade.
“This is something we wanted all season long,” Danish said. “It feels good to make history for our school.”
Danish got the Cougars on the board first, smacking a two-strike breaking ball over the right field fence in the fourth for his sixth homer of the season.
“Tyler is a great leader and a fantastic teammate,” Valdes said. “It’s been a blessing to coach someone like him.”
The Cougars scored a pair of unearned runs in the fifth and then added two more in the sixth to make it 5-0, the last coming on a Tyler Long sacrifice fly.
“Those runs we got that gave us a little cushion were huge,” Valdes said. “They were a game changer.”
But Wharton, 0-10 through district play and seeded sixth in the tournament, got an RBI double from pinch hitter John Nieves to cut it to 5-1. Tucker Neuhaus was then hit with a pitch, but Fowler (six hits and eight strikeouts in seven innings) fanned Ryan Lawson with the tying run on deck to end the game.
“It was (Fowler’s) to finish,” Valdes said. “It was his game to take it home.”
Valdes said Danish will get the ball when the Cougars (21-5) host Sarasota Riverview on Wednesday. Wharton (12-14) will travel to East Lake.
7A-8: Big second inning lifts Eagles
RIVERVIEW — One breakout inning was all Brandon needed against Plant City to repeat as district champion. The Eagles scored eight runs in the second inning to overwhelm the Raiders 9-1 in the 7A-8 final.
“Once we start hitting, it just keeps going,” Brandon centerfielder Eric Hinostroza said. “It’s a great feeling to be a part of a lineup that can hit the ball.”
The defending state runnerup Eagles pounded out seven hits in the second to chase Plant City starter Chris Wells and put the championship game away early. No. 9 batter Jordan Feist had the big hit in the inning, ripping a double to the gap in right-centerfield to plate two runs and put Brandon (19-6) ahead 3-0.
Troy Linderman, Jacob Sugden and Drayden Williams all had RBI singles for the Eagles, which sent 13 batters to the plate in the second. Plant City (13-12) didn’t help itself, committing two errors, throwing two wild pitches, a passed ball, a walk and a balk.
“One thing led to another, and (Plant City) kicked it around a little bit which extended the inning,” Brandon coach Matt Stallbaumer said. “When we get in those situations, (our hitters) kind of feed off each other.”
Eagles starting pitcher Ryan Anderson threw four complete innings and gave up just one run, that coming in the third when the Raiders’ Connor Slagill singled home Nick Rodriguez. Anderson, a junior, struck out three and walked none.
“We really felt like it was important to let Ryan Anderson, a guy that we think can pitch for us in the playoffs, come out and get his feet wet,” Stallbaumer said.
Hinostroza hit a home run to rightfield to lead off the fourth, giving the Eagles a 9-1 lead. Brandon left-handed reliever Antonio Velez came on in the fifth and held Plant City to two hits and no runs over the final three innings.
“It’s always great to win one district title,” Hinostroza said. “Coming back the next year and winning another makes it 10 times better knowing that we can defend our title.”
5A-11: There’s pretty much no shot at winning a mythical national championship anymore. But a district title is just fine for Jesuit.
Daniel Portales pitched five strong innings and Leland Saile hit a two-run homer in the fourth, lifting the Tigers to a 5-1 victory over Robinson in the District 5A-11 championship game.
It was the second straight district title for the Tigers (24-2), who lost their first two games of the season last week.
“That’s ultimately the goal for us,” coach Richie Warren said. “The last 26 games are behind us and we’re hopefully looking forward to five more.”
4A-9: After losing seven straight games to close the regular season, Berkeley Prep has rebounded in time to make something of itself in the postseason.
Dante Bosnic pitched a complete game, Anderson Baldy homered and the Buccaneers took an early lead and never looked back in a 6-0 victory over Tampa Catholic in the District 4A-9 championship game.
“It really feels like everyone is jelling,” Berkeley Prep coach Justin Houston said. “It was really an all-around effort.”
The Bucs (13-14) jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first inning, benefiting from some timely hitting and a fielding error by the top-seeded Crusaders.
3A-8: Tampa Prep and Brooks DeBartolo will meet Friday in the District 3A-8 title game after winning their respective semifinals.
The Terrapins beat Carrollwood Day 13-7, advancing to the district final on the strength of an early offensive burst that gave them an 11-1 lead going into the fifth inning.
Sam Martin hit two home runs and pitched Tampa Prep to the victory, which briefly seemed close to slipping away after CDS rallied to score six runs in the sixth inning.
“I’ve never felt so bad coming off the field after a 13-7 win,” said Tampa Prep coach John DeTringo. “We gave up some late runs and our starting shortstop (Matthew Fulton) got hurt late in the game, so that put a damper on the evening.”
Brooks DeBartolo topped Bishop McLaughlin 4-2 in the first semifinal. Senior Brenden Rivera led the Phoenix, finishing 3-for-4 with three doubles while batting in three runs.
Correspondents Brandon Wright, Bryan Burns and Andy Warrener contributed to this report.
Photo: Durant players celebrate their first district title since 2001 after beating Wharton 5-1.